Monday, March 1, 2021

Celebrating Women’s Grassroots Community Activism

From left to right:; Dr. Sheila Waters; Linda Waters Richardson; Nica Waters; Cynthia Waters-Tines; Lesley Fuller.

Feminist activists and historians have long advocated for recognition of women’s unpaid labor. Wages for Housework, an international movement founded in 1974, demanded that women’s domestic labor be recognized and compensated. Feminist economists argued for including women’s unpaid labor in the home in a nation’s GDP, thus ensuring women’s domestic labor would no longer be economically invisible.

Economist Nina Banks takes the concept a step further, arguing that the unpaid community activism performed by women in marginalized communities has economic value. Regarding Black Women, Dr. Banks told a New York Times reporter: “ Not only are we doing paid work for our communities and unpaid work in our households… We are also doing a third layer of community work — we’re exhausted. Recognizing this collective activism as work reveals the extra burden Black and brown women are under.”

Although Banks’ focus is on Black women, her analysis applies to women from a broad range of communities who spend countless hours on home and school organizations; who work as block captains organizing neighborhood cleanups; as community activists demanding that elected officials address issues such as environmental hazards and gun violence; and as committeepeople and poll workers, providing their neighbors with the information they need to participate in the political process.

Banks’ insistence on the economic value of this community work may make some community activists uncomfortable—reinforcing the notion that the worth of one’s work depends on its monetary value. However, calling attention to the economic value of community work helps make this work visible and may encourage more community activists to document their work. There are so many untold stories and so much work to be done documenting the rich history of women’s community activism.

In the course of doing research for my upcoming book, Feminist Organizing across the Generations, I became aware of just how much of this work has not been documented. When interviewing Mt. Airy resident Cynthia Waters-Tines about her work as a social justice in the 1970s, I asked her if she had kept any records of Triple Jeopardy, a group she and her sister Linda Richardson founded. Waters-Tines said that they were so busy, “We just weren’t thinking that much about documenting our work.”

Founded in the early 1970s, Triple Jeopardy was a small collective of five women determined to address issues impacting women of color. Waters-Tines described one of the group’s main accomplishments as “our influence on other women’s organizations that lacked much of a perspective on racial justice issues. We were the original intersectional group.” Triple Jeopardy counseled women on patients’ rights and pregnancy options and advocated for those who had been denied social services. Waters-Tines recalled that Triple Jeopardy helped reinstate benefits for one of its members who had been unfairly denied assistance under the Aid for Dependent Children Program (AFDC) after an argument with her caseworker, who considered her “too snippy.”

Waters-Tines recalled that in June of 1974 this woman had a baby at St. Joseph’s Hospital and after her pregnancy experienced a great deal of pain as a consequence of a pelvic infection that had gone undetected. Waters-Tines reported the woman “was told by a nun that she should shut her mouth. How dare she demand any help, she was on welfare and had no right to expect anything.” Furthermore, she was told that if she did not behave they were going to discharge her. They discharged her early; she challenged them and was readmitted to the hospital.

In response to this treatment, Triple Jeopardy set up a picket line at St. Joseph’s Hospital and distributed leaflets about the hospital’s discrimination against poor people. Waters-Tines reported that the civil disobedience squad came and arrested her, her daughter’s father, and Reggie Schell of the Black Panther Party. As a consequence of the demonstration, St. Joseph’s Hospital was pressured into forming one of the first community boards, which had an impact on hospital policy. Triple Jeopardy was proud of this achievement and of their role helping women navigate the welfare system.

Cynthia Waters-Tines stressed that throughout its relatively brief existence, Triple Jeopardy worked closely with the Pennsylvania Welfare Rights Organization (WRO), led by State Senator Roxanne Jones. When I went through about 20 boxes of the NOW Archives, I was surprised that there was no mention of WRO. This was no surprise to Waters Tines: “In that era we (Black and white feminists organizations) were in separate worlds. We had to make some of these feminist organizations aware of the issue of forced sterilization, which did not affect their members. We had to make these organizations aware of an intersectional approach and a global perspective.”

After a few years, the core group of Triple Jeopardy got full-time jobs, and the group disbanded. Waters-Tines noted that other organizations were beginning to acknowledge their issues: “We influenced organizations like Choice to start bringing in more women of color. In that sense we felt that we did our job. We went to conferences and advised people about what things they should be considering if they wanted to provide services in their communities. There were small gains; we weren’t around long enough to have had a major impact.” However, although difficult to quantify, Triple Jeopardy had an impact. After the group folded, Waters-Tines brought her social justice perspective to her work at Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center where she served as Executive Director Executive from 1990 to 1998.

Waters-Tines came from a family of well-known and highly regarded social justice activists; both she and her sister Linda Richardson made a major contribution to Philadelphia’s racial justice movement and to the local women’s health movement. Sadly, Linda Richardson died on November 2 2020. The sisters’ work with Triple Jeopardy in the 1970s is a compelling example of the unpaid community activism that Nina Banks demonstrated has economic value that must be recognized.

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